Stephen Brookes MBE, who served for three years as the Minister for Disabled Peoples Rail Sector Champion and is now the Rail Policy Adviser for the leading Pan Disability charity Disability Rights UK, feels the whole Rail Industry and its leaders need to develop consistent policies that reflect the added difficulties Disabled People face when accessing transport

Accessible transport should describe a network which allows all users equal opportunity to travel where they want to go, at a time they want, at a price they can afford. All policies must include a
full understanding of the problems Disabled People face in contemplating journeys or more importantly why some individuals simply do not use public transport when they might want to.

By moving to a model of defining disability that reflects social barriers as well as personal impairments policy makers will start to understand the wide-ranging experiences of individuals, with the added ingredient of recognising we hang tightly onto the belief of the saying ‘nothing about us without us’.

However, inevitably there are many occasions when disruption occurs, which can affect personal safety for disabled and older people, (just think of the crushes and rushes) with complicated and increased journey times, which can impact on Disabled People disproportionately. It is by working with us in creating a ‘plan B’ at the appropriate time that we can make access to stations and journeys less traumatic, and this also has the bonus of reducing the possibility of confrontation and the associated bad press as well as the financial impact of compensation being for one individual without bringing a general improvement.

Improvement by full inclusion is key to my work and I am pleased to be quoted in a recent press statement from Network Rail and TOC’s on a major replacement of the lift on the highly used platforms 13 and 14 at Manchester Piccadilly station which brought together a pan disability group.

In my quote I said ‘A group of Disabled People have worked closely with Network Rail in advising on mitigation and seeking to minimise the impact of the closure of the lift facility at platforms 13/14 at Manchester Piccadilly station. We do recommend that Disabled People share the news and information where possible.’

The advice from the group also pointed out that it is important those with mobility and sensory impairments to take extra time to arrive early at the station so that everyone can use the fully staffed replacement fixed platform stairlift facility provided in an effective way. The reasoning behind the success of this and other collaborative projects is based on filling the gaps in research into the use of rail by Disabled People which has historically omitted individuals from statistics, as they have not been include in access failures or even successes.

One such is the National Passenger Survey. The National Rail Passenger Survey is based on information from passengers who can access trains and stations, but it does not reflect the bad experiences of those who wished to make a train journey and yet were unable to do so, partly because they had difficulties in planning the journey, which lead to a lack of confidence to travel.
And there is the key point; the overriding problem with the industry mantra is that the model frequently does not allow for or consult with a range of Disabled People whose day-to-day views of disability as a lived experience is paramount as without this input Disabled People’s right to an independent lifestyle is inhibited.

All too often the starting point of a disability policy used to consider wheelchair access as the defining barrier, which is understandable given the universal symbol for disability is the wheelchair, although through our hard work, sight impairments, deafness, mental health, and a range of hidden disabilities are now considered as equally important in creating an accessible rail system.

The argument against making the rail system fully accessible has been that it has a massive cost implication for limited returns, but as the whole passenger demographic has changed since Covid with significantly more journeys based on leisure taken by older and Disabled People, that argument starts to look pretty shaky.

We continually tell all the companies and operators they need to involve Disabled People on the design, construction and usage of trains and stations. As by listening first, and by taking on the views of disabled rail users and understanding the issues they face, you stand more chance of getting things right from the start, and this will save money as you don’t have to go round putting things rights afterwards.

Another success of inclusion in planning is in the welcome for the provision of a new Assisted Travel Lounge and Changing Place facility at Manchester Piccadilly station in which the pan disability group aided with design and fitting specifications.

I feel that major rail stations are intimidating places for many rail passengers and for those with a range of disabilities the experience can even put some of off using rail travel, so the fact that the design and location of this important facility involved the views and requirements of a group of Disabled People is a significant move towards future cooperation on such projects across the rail network.

I am heartened by the fact that whilst in the last two years the Office for Rail and Road did require that TOCs do utilise disability advisory groups, I note they are increasingly being seen as ‘value added’ and are not just talking shops.

I know there are a good number of groups successfully working with the industry, and it is reassuring that disability access is a big part of the consultation for the DfT Whole of Industry Strategic Plan and the establishment of the working parameters for Great British Rail and I insist that we will keep working to make things better, because if you get it right for Disabled People you get it right for everyone!

Stephen Brookes MBE served for three years as the Minister for Disabled Peoples Rail Sector Champion and is now the Rail Policy Adviser for the leading Pan Disability charity Disability Rights UK.